King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34

Hund dashed the bucket from his hands, looked at him with bitter enmity. “Poisoned, I said! And if it is bad for you, what about my wounded?”

Shef passed a tongue over dry lips. It was night already. The whole long afternoon and short evening had been a struggle over baking dust and stone, they had rallied round a hilltop villa which must have its own well. As had happened every time that day, the enemy had thought quicker. He did not know if it was a dead man down the well or something more certain, poison berries maybe. He had to take Hund’s word. He had to have water. There was a train of wounded lying ominously quiet. Styrr, who had saved his life, was looking at him in silence. Styrr could resist heat and thirst less well than most men. Outside the night was filled with a deafening chorus of crickets from the olive trees: sound enough to cover any ambush. That was what the enemy wanted.

Brand was propelling someone forward, an old man, a greybeard. There was always someone, Shef remembered Brand telling him, who decided to stay put no matter what threat was coming.

“Ask him where the nearest water is,” he ordered. “Skaldfinn, translate.”

The chatter that followed sounded like Church Latin to Shef. These were, he supposed, the degenerate descendants of the ancient Romans, still speaking their language, but badly, if not as badly as the French.

“He says, in the aqueduct at the bottom of the hill. It comes from Rome, which is fed by its own aqueducts.”

“What’s an aqueduct?”

“Like a canal, only made of brick or stone.”

Did the greybeard stay behind out of folly or weakness, Shef wondered, or was he left to tell me just that? He will lie. I need to know the truth. Ragnar, Ivar’s father, Svandis’s grandfather, he knew how to deal with people like this, Cuthred once told me. I wonder if I can do it myself?

He stepped over to the old man, jerked him to his knees, shoved a thumb firmly into the corner of one eye. Ragnar used to grow his right thumb-nail long for just this purpose, he remembered dully. Must have made the job easier. He used to gouge one out before he asked a question, just to show he meant it. I can’t quite do that.

“Tell him I will have his eyes unless he can tell me why I should trust him,” he said, voice flat.

“How can he make you believe that?” answered Skaldfinn.

“I don’t know. That’s for him to work out.”

The old man was weeping now, he could feel the tears under his thumb, tightened his grip a fraction to compensate as the gabble went on. Hund was staring at him, face twisted with hatred, hand ready for a grab to save the old man, but unable to do it without risking a slip. Svandis was there too, looking uncertain—she boasted often enough about her grandfather, let her see what it was really like. Brand’s eyebrows were raised. Styrr was grinning.

“He says there is no better place, but the Emperor’s soldiers will be waiting, he heard them talking, not all are Germans. I think he’s telling the truth,” Skaldfinn added. “He’s not trying to lay a trap. He’s telling us the trap’s there.”

Shef let the old man drop to the floor. Today he had done everything wrong. Time to make up for it.

“We’ll get the water,” he said. “Find Steffi, and Cwicca, and Osmod.”

“Nothing for us Norsemen to do?” asked Styrr huskily.

“Business for Loki,” Shef replied.

“What have you got that we can use?” Shef demanded. No-one spoke more words than they had to now. Their throats were too dry.

“Plenty of flares,” replied Steffi. “We improved them. The last lot, I had to light them and then hold them, you remember. Now we know that rope soaked in a solution of that saltpeter stuff burns well and doesn’t go out in flight.”

“What else?”

“I’ve been trying to make kind of—Greek fire balls, that we can throw, not squirt.”

“Do they work?”

“I can’t get them to spray out when they land. But they’ll set anything on fire, and water doesn’t put them out, just spreads the flame. They’re made of bark, with sulphur and saltpeter, and soaked in the Greek oil. All sewn into waxed cotton. Fuses to set them off.”

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Categories: Harrison, Harry